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Can A Groundhog Tell Us If The End Of Winter Is Near?
Posted on Sunday, January 31, 2016 by eNature
Groundhog range
Groundhog range
© Andreyostr

Tuesday is Groundhog Day and groundhogs are receiving A LOT of media attention.  And Punxsutawney Phil is preparing to deliver his forecast early that morning

We’ve received a number of inquiries about this furry, kind-of-cute rodent from readers.

Groundhogs clearly aren’t related to pigs or hogs—so what exactly are they?

The groundhog (also known as a woodchuck or Eastern Marmot) is actually a large, ground-dwelling rodent and is part of family of ground squirrels known as marmots.

Groundhogs are lowland creatures and are common in the northeastern and central United States, found as far north as eastern Alaska and south as the northern half of Alabama. (see range map to right).

If you live in the western U.S., particularly in rocky and mountainous areas, you’re probably familiar with the the groundhog’s cousins such as the yellow-bellied and hoary marmots. 

Can They Really Chuck Wood?
The name that many use for the animal, “woodchuck”, is derived from the Native American Algonquian tribe’s name for the animal, “wuchak”.

So despite the tounge-twister we’ve all heard (as well as that GEICO ad a year or two back!), it’s name has nothing to do with throwing around pieces of wood, even though it’s a great image….

Digging Life
These busy rodents are great diggers and hikers can often find their dens by looking for disturbed earth.  Their short, powerful limbs and curved, thick claws are ideally suited for digging the extensive excavations they are known to create. 

Groundhogs have two coats of fur—a dense grey undercoat that is then covered by a longer coat of banded guard hairs, which provide its distinctive “frosted” appearance.

They are good swimmers and excellent tree climbers and can do both while escaping predators. When threatened, groundhogs generally retreat to their burrows but the animal can tenaciously defend itself or its burrow using its two large incisors and front claws.  That said, groundhogs are pretty easy prey for predators such as coyotes, foxes, bears and even large raptors.  Young groundhogs are also preyed upon by snakes.

What Do Groundhogs Eat?
Groundhogs are mostly herbivorous, consuming wild grasses and other vegetation such as berries and agricultural crops.  On occasion, they’ll also eat grubs, insects, snails and similar small animals. Groundhogs don’t need open water to drink and can hydrate themselves by consuming leafy vegetation.

Individuals often “stand alert” in an erect posture on their hind legs when not actively feeding. This is a commonly seen behavior and easily observed.

So How Can They Predict The End Of Winter?

Unlike many rodents, groundhogs are true hibernators and are rarely, if ever, active or seen during the winter.  They often build a separate “winter burrow”, which extends below the frost line and stays at a steady temperature year round, allowing the animal to avoid freezing during the winter’s cold months.

It’s this trait of sleeping through the winter that led to the folklore that a groundhog’s behavior can predict when winter will end.

Since a groundhog sleeps through the entire winter, the reasoning is that the winter must be ending if he’s willing to stay out and about once he or she has been awakened on February 2nd.

It’‘s a pretty shaky premise and the poor creature is probably so dazed from being rudely awakened that he has no idea what the temperature is.

How Accurate Are A Groundhog’s Predictions?
Groundhogs are among our longest hibernators, often settling down as early as October and remaining in their burrow until March or April.

So no matter what our furry prognosticators may appear to tell us on Groundhog Day, it’s a pretty safe bet that just want to go back to sleep, regardless of the weather!


Here at eNature’s offices in the mid-Atlantic, we often see groundhogs come spring— along roadsides, in gardens and even in city parks.  Have you encountered any? 

As always, we enjoy your stories

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Comments

A few years ago, a groundhog and her children decided to live beneath my deck, which is fairly low to the ground. I knew that they were there by the burrowing that was visible at a few points on each side of the wooden structure. I came home during my lunch break to find 3 babies and their Mother sunning themselves on top of the wooden floor! They lazily looked at me as I exited my car and reluctantly decided to go below to safety. Eventually, I had someone trap them with a humane trap and sweet potatoes as bait. They were moved to a less populated area. They were adorable, but can be destructive burrowing under any structure, so they had to go.

Posted by Ginger on 2/2

It’s more likely that groundhogs venture above ground around 2/2 in order to check out members of the opposite gender. After scoping out the field, they usually return to their burrows for another 40 winks.

Posted by Joy on 2/2

I once came home to find a woodchuck sunning itself on the flagstone floor of my sunroom. I still don’t know how it got in. It was comical the way it froze in place, as if that would prevent me from seeing it! I left the outside door open and he/she eventually ambled off.

Posted by Lorri on 2/2

I took my pet rabbit for a stroll in my yard today in upstate New York. It was sunny and mild (mid-40s) with absoluately no snow anyplace nearby. I spotted a small hole in my yard with piles of dirt on two sides. I believe it’s a chipmunk burrow because I see them often in spring, summer and fall. I know the chipmunks hibernate to some extent, but wondered if they had ventured out today.

Posted by PJ on 2/2

It didn’t take long for our dog to corner a baby groundhog, which was still bigger than her, that had moved in under our pool shed, evicting the mama rabbit that usually lives there. My daughter is a certified wildlife rescuer, so I borrowed a trap from her and baited it with corn. Only took 2 hours to catch junior woodchuck. We took him to a field where other groundhogs lived, opened a trap near a burrow and he or she scooted right down the tunnel. Don’t tell anyone! LOL. It’s illegal in my state to do what we did, you’re supposed to kill them!

Posted by Patricia Turk on 2/2

We see scores of them every Spring at Enview plantation. There are also two living outside of the the Yorktown Pub who have befriended the Pub’s cats.

Posted by Kelly Moneymaker on 2/3

While I understand that in the days of horsedrawn farm machinery, groundhog holes were a menace, I truly don’t get the continued vendetta. The hounds don’t agree of course.

Posted by Joy on 2/3

Last Winter, in January, when we had a substantial Snowfall, I was out walking a large field near my home, with my dog, when I saw a VERY large Groundhog racing across the open field toward a treeline, where there was a burrow!! He looked very strange running through the snow!

Posted by KATHARINA C. BERGDOLL on 2/3

nice site!

Posted by WilliamZECE on 2/4

Interesting! I hope that everyone’s Saturday is going both great and safe, plus I also hope that they enjoyed the recent holidays that we’ve had.

Posted by Mike Waldrep on 2/6
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